Big brand executives talk a lot about how they want to think, market and innovate like startups. They send their top brand managers and marketers to conferences across the country and then tell them to implement maxims like “innovate at the speed of culture.” They sing the praises of Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, which argues that for a big company to survive, it needs to separate a small part of the company away from the larger corporate whole and give it the space to innovate.
And yet, all the while, these very same big brands often do nothing to dismantle the constraints that kill any hope of real innovation. Good ideas are often bloody, swollen and limp by the time they reach the top of the corporate ladder. Usually, they just fall off by the fourth rung.
The solution starts with cultural autonomy for brand marketers. Give the marketers their own rules, dress code and schedule, and provide full autonomy from the rest of the organization. If possible, also separate their profit and loss statements. Then, when they’re done thanking you, sit back and watch the team transform overnight. Why is it so important to detach brand marketers from the rest of the organization? A company’s business goals can suffocate marketers and make them less effective at what they do.
As an ex-brand marketer for a global financial institution, I felt the company goals were sometimes detrimental to — if not in direct conflict with — the best interests of our marketing efforts. A conservative brand, such as a financial institution, needs creative marketing as much as any other brand — perhaps even more so because it’s a special challenge to make a conservative brand appear dynamic and interesting to a mass audience. To overcome this challenge, you need the right marketing team to focus on increasing brand awareness and engagement – something that can be hard to do when you’re caught up in a company-wide push to track and increase operational effectiveness.
If you’re not able to give your marketing team its own P&L, at least give it a budget to innovate in ways that aren’t necessarily related to the current campaign. Google famously gives its employees 20 percent playtime to be creative and innovate on any project they’d like. That’s allowed Google to constantly reimagine itself from a search giant to an email service, to an advertising king, to an inventor of driverless cars. It’s also made Google the coolest place on earth to work, in my opinion.
When possible, the best way to achieve cultural autonomy for marketers is to provide physical autonomy. A conservative environment can inhibit the free flow of ideas and even interfere with recruitment efforts. Many of the most talented creatives are hesitant, if not unwilling, to take a job that locks them inside a stiff corporate office. A separate space for the marketing team is also crucial. When located in the right area — say, downtown Manhattan or Dumbo — your team can be in the heart of a larger creative culture that spurs innovation. After all, the best marketing ideas are rarely inspired by things that happen inside an organization. They usually come from brand marketers being exposed to creative and innovative agencies, vendors, VCs and the rest of the ad tech startup community. You want your marketing team members running into other creative minds in the elevator or at the corner coffee shop, and that’s just not going to happen if the team is tucked away on the 34th floor of corporate headquarters.
You also want your marketers exposed to agencies and vendors so that they can effectively manage their relationships with the companies they work with. They need to be on par with the agencies if they’re going to know when to green-light something and when to call BS.
Still, stay in touch; don’t give them too much air, or they’ll become completely
disconnected from the rest of the organization. But that’s another story.
Ben Plomion, director of marketing and partnerships at Chango, a search-retargeting company, was formerly a marketer at GE Capital.
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